CAREERS AND WORK-LIFE BALANCE AT COMPUCAN
Introduction and background to the company
Compucan is a multi-national, blue-chip IT company renowned for its progressive HRM policies. The company has declared its commitment to helping employees achieve work-life balance. It has conducted a number of company-wide surveys in order, first, to understand the experiences of its employees and then to design appropriate policies, which both meet their needs and are compatible with business objectives. Various practices have been introduced, notably flexible hours, home- and tele-working. However, some job roles are far less suited to these kinds of flexible working initiatives. Consequently, some employees have more opportunities to take up flexible working options than others. Business needs and the demands of certain job roles can also dictate that these ‘options’ are not always optional for some employees. That said, there are a number of company initiatives designed to respond to employees’ needs and preferences. Women returning from maternity leave, for example, have a right to a minimum of two-years’ part-time employment. Those who elect to return full-time after maternity leave receive an uplift to their salary for a two-year period to help cover child-care costs. Men are not entitled to these benefits at present, nor are those who care for other dependents or have other major life commitments outside of work. The company does, however, allow employees to apply for a 12-month sabbatical and, if successful, will part fund their ‘year out’. On the face of it then, and relative to many other employers, Compucan is working hard to create a family-friendly work environment in which its employees can achieve and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
This case study presents an opportunity to assess the difficulties, which even the best-intentioned company can experience when attempting to put policy into practice. The following discussion draws from the accounts of a number of Compucan employees. The employees we hear from here are all graduates, aged around 30 years, working at various UK locations in a number of different job functions and levels. Attention is turned first to mothers, then fathers and finally single people without children.
Motherhood and career at Compucan
Molly is married with a young child. She has worked for the company for 10 years and opted for part-time hours on returning from maternity leave three years ago. Her husband also works for the company on a full-time basis. Comparing herself to others Molly feels relatively well off:
I know a lot of women in this area who work, or did work for various different employers, who’ve got children, and I’m in a very, very good position. In terms of having the option of going back part-time and having flexible hours and flexible days … They’re very good if she’s ill, which happens rarely, and that sort of thing. As a part-time job for a working mother, it’s an extremely good one, it really is.
Exercising her right to the company’s family-friendly options, however, comes at a price.
Before I had a child I had a career … I’m not prepared to put in the sort of time and effort that it takes to have a career – well I’ve got a young child. If I was prepared to do that then I would still see it as a career and I think I would still be treated as having a career.
Molly feels that because of her part-time hours she is no longer able to maintain a career at Compucan and, importantly, she feels that her colleagues no longer treat her as someone who has a career. It is as though there is a tacit rule that career is something that is reserved only for men and childless women, not for mothers with child-care responsibilities. Even if her husband wanted to do so, he would be unable to share the child-care responsibilities with Molly since the company do not offer men the option to return part-time following the birth of a child. Thus Molly is the primary carer for the couple’s child.
Jasmine is 30 years old, married with two children and has worked at the company for nine years. She made good progress in her early years at the company, earning rapid promotion to a first line managerial position. However, her line management role ended when she first went on maternity leave.
My career stopped with the birth of my first child. If I bring up anything to do with promotion with my manager it’s very quickly squashed. I believe until I’ve stopped having children, until I walk in and say I’m definitely not having any more children, they won’t even consider me for promotion.
Thus, like Molly, Jasmine not only feels that she no longer has a career but that she is n being treated as though she has a career. Despite all the efforts of the company to create a family-friendly work environment, there appears to be a widespread acceptance, however reluctantly, of the incompatibility of motherhood and career at Compucan.
Samantha, like Jasmine, achieved rapid promotion before she had her first child and also recently returned from maternity leave to work part-time:
My career is coming to a bit of an end because of, you know, how my priorities have changed … I suppose I’m slipping now from being on the high-flying list to being on the mediocre list.
She describes a female colleague who went through a similar experience:
There’s a lass who used to be my manager when I first joined who’s older than me.
She went into management. Terribly career-minded. Really moved on very quickly took on some really difficult roles, loads of stress. Then she suddenly fell pregnant in her early 40s. She’s gone from like the real high-flying sort to the mediocre bunch,
Though they don’t like it, Molly and Samantha have all rationalised the end of their career as linked to their decision to work part-time. Jasmine, however, does not accept this explanation. Following the birth of her first child, she initially returned to work full-time and took up the enhanced pay incentive. She soon discovered that she was still prevented from continuing her career, even on a full-time contract. From this experience she concludes:
There’s no point in coming back full-time. One of the things about coming back full-time is that you keep your career going, but you don’t, so there’s really limited point. You do if you work 12 hours and work absolutely no differently to the way you worked before, then you’re fine. But the fact that you’re working an 8- to 9-hour day, no matter what you get done in that time, the fact that you don’t have lunch, the fact that you literally don’t chat to anyone, you’re just head down working the entire time you’re there just doesn’t count. So therefore what’s the motivation for me to come back full-time?
Such demanding long hours cultures put those with commitments outside work at a distinct disadvantage. This expectation that aspiring employees should work long hours, as well as the assumption that women should shoulder primarily child-care responsibilities, is deeply embedded in the company’s history and values. Molly offers a comparison between the old system as was and the new system aspired to, along with the inherent difficulties in bridging the divide between the two:
I think the company as a whole is now very keen to be flexible around families … but it also likes people to be quite devoted to it. It’s a bit double-edged, I think. For a long time, particularly on the technical side, the company has employed mostly men who will work long hours. The company has expected their wives to not work. Ifs been a fact that most of the men have had wives who don’t work and so if they have children, it’s the wives who look after them.
Even a supposedly family-friendly company still, it seems, values most and offers greatest rewards to those prepared to sacrifice family life. New mothers find their career and their family life cast in opposition to each other. As they understand it, they must make a ‘choice’ between family on the one hand and career on the other,
Fatherhood and career at Compucan
Unlike new mothers, new fathers at the company report that career and family life are not in opposition, but they are experienced as in competition with each other, Fathers are able to retain their careers perhaps in large part because their wives shoulder most child-care responsibilities. New fathers do nevertheless report difficulties achieving a work-life balance. With fatherhood comes a desire to decrease the time devoted to work in order to free up time for family life as distinct from primary child-care responsibilities). Fathers’ dilemma is this: the more time devoted to work, the faster the speed of career progression; time spent on family life slows down career progression.
For Tom, who is 30 years old, married with a three-month-old son, first marriage and then fatherhood has meant he now devotes less time to work than before:
Before I was married and certainly before I had my son the hours and the weekends that I was working, .. I mean I put in a lot of time. It was not unknown to get up in the middle of the night and do something because we’d just had a new order or I couldn’t sleep or something like that. I don’t do that anymore.
So it is not just mothers whose hours of work decline due to family commitments. But mothers suffer more profound effects on their careers. Perhaps this is because primary child-care responsibilities fall almost exclusively to women, leaving their husbands freer meet the demands of their careers. For example, Tom’s wife has given up entirely her own full-time career to care for their son full-time. Tom’s concerns rest with minimising the time demands of his career in order that he can spend more time with his family. He believes that he may have to compromise the speed of his career progression in order to achieve the work-life balance he desires:
My life outside of work has changed quite a lot over the past three months. I’m now looking at my career and thinking – I don’t spend as much time as I always in my ow mind said I would with my family, That didn’t used to be a problem until my wife gave up work, because we were both working the same sort of hours. Now it is a problem. Or I can see it growing into one because I’m not doing what I always wanted to do, I wanted to be able to spend more time at home, not work on Sunday evenings, , , I can’t see a step forward, I can’t see a career progression without home life suffering a bit. I mean I don’t want [my wife] to have to go back to work so I need to look for that next job now and look for a bigger salary, but that may have an implication on how much time I get to spend with [my wife] and [son].
Although men’s careers are affected by parenthood, they are affected in different ways. The speed of a new father’s career progression may be restricted if he wishes to cut back on working hours to spend more time with his family but, unlike new mothers, fathers do feel that they retain their careers. New mothers on the other hand feel that the advent of parenthood signals not just the end of opportunities for career progression but the end of their careers.
The single person and work-life balance at Compucan
Ruby, who has been with the company for seven years, is 30 years old, single and has no children. She has been seriously ill recently. She hoped that she would recover quickly but has been advised by her doctor that her health problems are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. She is back at work now following a period of sick leave and has taken on a new role which is less physically demanding and involves far less travel than her previous roles. The experience of illness has caused Ruby to reflect on the sacrifices she has made for the sake of her career. Her previous roles required her to be geographically mobile – an ‘intergalactic traveller’. Responding to these work demands has taken its toll on her life outside work. Ruby is a keen and very talented athlete, but in pursuit of her work career she has all but abandoned her ‘athletics career’ as she puts it. She has been paid very well for her efforts – so much so that she was able to payoff her student debts and buy her first flat by the age of 25. Looking back, she recalls having little time to enjoy her success, hardly ever seeing the inside of her new home. She also regrets the impact work has had on her relationships:
Because I was never at home, I saw a couple of relationships flounder, simply because I just never was around,
Ben is 28 years old, single and has been at the company for five years. He has been promoted much higher and faster than he expected and realises he could reach executive level within a relatively short space of time. This makes him wonder just how high up the corporate hierarchy he wants to go, given the high price which accompanies such success.
I’m perhaps beginning to realise that I need to think about (a) where my natural ceiling is and (b) what I want to sacrifice to get there. If you want to get to executive level you have to live to work. You have to expect that most weekends you might be travelling somewhere. You’re always on call effectively, If you’re on holiday, you’re probably always looking at your mail. You’ll be travelling all over the show away from your home and family and friends. You know, if you have children then you probably wouldn’t be able to go and see their sports day, that sort of thing,
What makes Ben’s account interesting is that he is a senior member of the company’s HRM department. While the department is undoubtedly working hard to create a family-friendly work environment in which employees can achieve and maintain a work-life balance, achieving this in practice is clearly far from easy.
1. With reference to theoretical models, concepts, and current environmental conditions, examine the key issues identified in the case study.
2. How successful has Compucan been in its efforts to become a family-friendly employer, and what barriers have hampered its family-friendly and work-life balance policies?
3. What advice would you offer the organization?